sonny boy lee

Sonny Boy Lee

Before Minneapolis native Damon "Sonny Boy" Lee was 20 years old, he and his rockabilly band, Damon and the Diablos, backed Fabian, Dion, Little Eva, Del Shannon and Gene Vincent, among other headliners, at venues that included the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, Minnesota and the Minneapolis Armory.  In the early '60s Sonny went on the road in the Midwest and the southern United States with several rhythm and blues and blues bands including the Wanderers, the Excells and the Five Crowns.  He also sat in frequently with George "Mojo" Buford, who taught Sonny to play blues harp, and Mojo's band, The Shy Four, which included the late Pat "Red" Hare, Francis Clay and Jo Jo Williams.

In June 1964, Sonny met Big Walter Smith, the man he considers his mentor, at the Peppermint Club in Kansas City.  Sonny's band was backing the Drifters and Big Walter noticed the lead singer trying to cue Sonny by poking him in the chest during a rendition of "Part Time Love."  Walter thought it was really funny and later in the evening, introduced himself.  Six months later Walter called and asked for help putting together a band in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  He and Sonny played together off and on in various groups in the Midwest until April 1971, when Walter, who was then living in Oklahoma City, called Sonny and asked if there was a spot for a vocalist in Sonny's blues rock band, Antares.  Walter came to Minneapolis, a move that was to become permanent, and was the featured vocalist with Antares, which also included bassman Joe Sherohman, drummer and vocalist Hye Pockets Robertson, and for a short while, vocalist Little Kay.  For a year and a half, the band played six nights a week at Papa Joe's Northern Supper Club in Minneapolis.  Antares broke up when the club was demolished to make way for freeway construction, and Sonny moved to the West Coast.  He and Walter didn't see each other again until almost 10 years later, when Sonny returned to Minneapolis.  In 1986, Big Walter asked him to join his band, the Groove Merchants, for a performance at the Minnesota Black Music Awards.

With the advent of disco in the late '70s, many full-time musicians struggled to support themselves and Sonny turned to playing other styles of music, including country rock, soft rock and Top 40s.  During that time Sonny was the lead guitarist for Rita Coolidge on several of her West Coast road shows.  By the early '80s, Sonny lived in Southern Oregon and played with a variety band called Counterpoint.  On November 7, 1982, they were returning home to Grants Pass from a gig the night before in Klamath Falls, when a young woman who was driving a car in oncoming traffic skidded on the ice, crossed over the line on the two-lane mountain highway, and hit the band's van head-on.  Other members of the band suffered only minor injuries, but Sonny's back was broken and he was told by doctors that he would never walk again.  Six weeks later, he left Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford, Oregon wearing a full body cast and hobbling on crutches.  Reassessing his life, Sonny decided he was through playing music he didn't particularly like just to keep working full-time as a musician.  From then on, he would play only blues.  After a brief stint playing in Minneapolis in the mid-80s with the Big Walter Smith Blues Band, Sonny moved to the Southern Oregon coast.  In 1991, he formed the Brookings, Oregon based Blues Haven Blues Band with guitarist and vocalist Rich Claus, bassman Eric Sexty and drummer Steve Early.  Sonny, Claus and Sexty regrouped in January 1995 with the Borderline Blues Band, which also featured Gary Farrar on drums and Jim Klahr on keyboards.

Sonny was only 19 years old when he began frequenting clubs on the South Side of Chicago and got hooked on the blues.  During that time he was fortunate enough to meet and hear some of the greats, including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and James Cotton.  Later, through his association with Big Walter Smith, Sonny met Albert King and also Albert Collins, who became a friend and an inspiration.  Hearing some of the greatest blues legends inspired Sonny to a lifetime, with a few detours, of dedication to playing Chicago-influenced, urban electric blues the way he once heard Muddy Waters remark it was meant to be played.  Currently working on personal projects, Sonny, in spite of all obstacles, continues to let his guitar notes b-r-e-a-t-h-e.


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